On most workdays before the pandemic turned her home into her office, Anna Ackerman ate lunch alone at her desk, typically, unpacking from its tin foil casing a “very quickly made wrap,” eating it with coffee from the office kitchenette, “sometimes back-to-back with a co-worker who was eating at her desk. How sad is that?”

“My partner made our wraps in the morning and would hand one to me as we both whizzed out the door,” said Ackerman, who works as a program developer at the CEI Women’s Business Center in Portland.

“It was not very satisfying to eat at my desk in the office,” she admitted. But as with so many of the rest of us — studies say as many as 62 percent of professionals in the U.S. eat lunch at their desks — it’s what we did.

On most workdays since the pandemic turned her home into her office, Ackerman sits down at a table for lunch and eats a real meal with her “pod family”: some combination of her fiance, her best friend and her best friend’s husband depending on their schedules; the couples moved in together in May. “We are a house full of people who love food,” she said. So it’s no wonder that lunches — improvised from leftovers, relying on homemade bread (“Definitely we went through our sourdough period and we went through our bagel period”), and riffing on the classics (say, avocado-tomato-and-basil tuna melt) – are more “interesting and fun now,” Ackerman said.

That’s one case, but before you conclude the coronavirus has spelled the end of the sad desk lunch, meet Lisa Pulsifer, a copy editor at Idexx in Westbrook. She sounds positively wistful when she recalls the splendiferous Idexx cafeterias. Pulsifer, who has been working from home in Brunswick for the last seven months, misses her daily, made-to-order chopped salads, with noteworthy add-ons like shrimp, salmon, grilled chicken, flank steak and roasted cauliflower. She misses the sushi station, too, with her irresistible once-a-week treat, the spicy Boston shrimp rolls. She lists such cafeteria options as brick oven pizzas, onion rings and chicken tenders, even if she rarely indulged in those. “At work I had the variety. I would normally eat a very decent meal,” she said, “a much better lunch than what I pull together here.”

Based on an informal and far from comprehensive survey of office workers in the Portland area, work lunch in the era of COVID-19 has changed for better and for worse — sometimes both.

Wage earners working at home since March variously brought up snacking more and snacking less; eating better and eating worse; re-conceptualizing leftovers and cooking brand-new dishes from scratch; cooking lunch intentionally and doing it haphazardly; the delights of eating out of their gardens, and the drudgery of eating the same lame lunch for days in a row. Some spoke about magical meals with their children, others about needing a break from their toddlers.

There were covert Zoom lunches, and there were objections to the same. Sandy Gilbreath, who works as a community development specialist at the Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission, has been eating lunch for breakfast (recently lentils and chicken), while Elsa Vernon, an events manager at The Nature Conservancy in Maine, no longer has a lunch hour, at least not in the usual sense. That time now goes to Poppyseed, the puppy Vernon adopted in July. “It’s a whole hour at the dog park,” Vernon said of her new lunch ritual. “It’s a giant puppy playpen. You are petting dogs for an hour. It’s awesome!”

Kid-friendly lunch

Rachael Harkness, programming manager at the Portland Public Library, is equally delighted with her lunchmate, in her case her 9-year-old daughter Lucy. The very first thing Harkness said when contacted by this reporter was “I am so excited about our home lunches! I would love to talk about lunch!”

Rachael Harkness and her daughter Lucy in their backyard in Portland. The pandemic has given the pair a standing lunch date that mom Rachael describes as “a complete silver lining.” Photo courtesy of Rachael Harkness

Harkness’ younger son eats his lunch, packed by his mom, at pre-school. Her husband is still going in to work. But Lucy’s summer programs were cancelled and now she is attending in-school classes at Reiche Community School just two days a week and even on those days, she’s home by lunchtime. So mom and daughter have a standing work/school day lunch date. The food is good — rolled-up ham with Morse’s pickles and cut-up apples; miniature quiches that Lucy learned to bake with her British grandmother; purist tomato sandwiches for mom (“It’s literally the best thing. It’s the best thing ever,” Harkness said about her sandwiches) and tomatoes with cheese and crackers for Lucy.

But the food isn’t the point.

“When we get together for lunch, it just feels like such a luxury we wouldn’t get to have in normal times,” said Harkness, who in the pre-pandemic era ate lunch at her desk in the library, “random leftovers and whatever I could find for myself and throw in my bag. Horrible.”

“It feels like a complete silver lining having this time,” Harkness continued. “It’s when I get up and stop working and sit down and have lunch with Lucy face to face. It’s not dinner, which is more of a production. It’s not breakfast, when the four of us are together. It’s nice and informal. We’re chatting. It’s very low stakes. I’m not telling her to do her school work. I’m not telling her what to eat. I’m not telling her to get her shoes on because it’s time to go to soccer.” It feels, Harkness said, like a friendship.

The situation is more complicated for Kira Bennett Hamilton, a colleague of Vernon’s at The Nature Conservancy and, like Harkness, a working mom; her children are smaller. In normal times, she’d thoughtfully pack a bento box for herself in the evenings, and she’d enjoy its contents the next day over lunch with her colleagues. “We had a lovely shared kitchen with tables,” she said. “That was definitely my time to connect with people outside of meetings.”

Now, she is often eating lunch with her 4- and 2-year-old, as well as her husband, her mother and the babysitter. “In terms of the food, it involves a lot more melted cheese,” she said. Hamilton likes melted cheese, “grilled cheese, quesadillas, things like that.” It goes without saying that she loves her children. Still, “sometimes I’ll make something and sneak back into the (home) office,” to prevent the children from spying her, demanding her attention and derailing the babysitter. Also, “I like the office lunch, I do. It’s definitely nice to share meals with my kids, but I do that with other meals. And it was definitely nice when lunch was different.”

Elizabeth Marble Caton, a brand and nutrition manager at Guiding Stars who is normally based out of Hannaford corporate offices in Scarborough, shares those conflicted feelings. Her kids, ages 3 and 1, have returned to daycare several days a week, but before that you couldn’t have called her pandemic work-day lunches a break. (How long were the kids out of daycare? “It felt like five years,” Caton laughed). Her husband has been going in to work all along, leaving her alone on mom duty, juggling full-time work and full-time kids. Lunch, by any other name, was childcare.

“My work-life balance was far worse than it had been,” Caton said. “But at the same time it did give me that moment. It’s that weird silver lining. It made you stop. My first priority was and always will be my kids, so it made me stop and care for them.”

Kat McNeil garnishes soup, made from leftover Brussels sprouts and carrots, with fresh chives before eating lunch with her new husband (they married in the backyard earlier this month) and housemates. McNeil, a consultant, is often too busy to join, according to housemate Anna Ackerman. She has “an inordinate amount of work,” said Ackerman, “so we usually deliver her lunch to her desk. Usually. she is on a Zoom call, and she is still participating in the call and she will squeeze your hand to give you a thank-you for the delivery. ” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Breaktime

Kids or no kids, most of us know we should be stopping for lunch and stepping away from our desks. By law in Maine, “Employers must offer employees the opportunity to take a consecutive 30-minute unpaid or paid rest break after 6 hours worked.” Employees may waive their right to take these breaks, “preferably in writing.” (Does anybody do that?) Many studies show that breaks make us more productive; the change of scenery, along with the rest, allows us to recharge and refocus for the remainder of the work day and tamps down tendencies to reach for the potato chips and other unhealthy snacks. You probably know this from your own experience.

But knowing something and doing it are two different things. At CEI, Ackerman said, “I was lucky in the office if I could get a co-worker to go out for a 10-minute walk at lunch, let alone eat with me,” a state of affairs she attributed to “the culture of the work place. There was some guilt associated with half-hour lunch or 45 minutes.”

By contrast, her pandemic mid-day lunch — one of the four housemates, each working in separate rooms, gets hungry; wanders into the kitchen and cooks for the whole gang; then sends a group text to announce that lunch is ready — “is so refreshing and often involves stepping outside and feeling some sunshine,” Ackerman said. “That does wonders for being able to power through the afternoon.”

Ackerman hopes that when the day arrives that the pandemic recedes and she is back in the office, the office lunch hour will look different. “I would like to advocate for more communal lunches in the office place. I have the feeling my colleagues would be interested in that, too. I have heard them in meetings saying they have to tend to their bread in the oven or their applesauce on the stovetop. So I know that cooking is happening and people are finding a way to weave it into their day.”

Caton, a nutritionist, is well aware of the drawbacks of eating lunch at her desk. But when she was at the office, she almost always did so. “Oh it’s a horrible habit. It’s absolutely terrible,” she conceded. “That whole mindfulness eating is really not present when you are typing away and shoveling food in.”

So … she did it anyway? “Honestly, it came down to needing to get things done,” she said. “I have two little kiddos, so there was a defined end to my day.”

Do other countries do better on this count, as they do on more generous parental leave, more vacation days and fewer hours worked? Reports on the sad desk lunch refer mostly to Americans and to our anxieties that taking a lunch break looks like laziness. Some years ago, Hamilton spent a magical year in Italy at the University of Gastronomic Science, meeting artisanal producers and tasting one delicious thing after another.

“The hardest thing about coming back to the U.S. and working in an American context is that people don’t take time for lunch,” she said. “It drives me nuts. Foodies, people who think of themselves as foodies, will be sitting there at lunch, eating their sad sandwich, scrolling through Instagram, looking at pictures of food. They are not taking the time to connect with the people they are eating with, or their surroundings, or with what they are eating.”

Puppy love

New dog mom Elsa Vernon has given over her lunch hour to her new puppy, Poppyseed. And unlike office workers, pre- or mid-pandemic, it looks like she gets nap time, too. Photo by Elsa Vernon

No question who is flourishing thanks to this work-from-home deal: Poppyseed. Unlike some of the rest of us, her pandemic pounds are just what they should be: 3 pounds when she arrived in Portland, 9 pounds today, target goal: 15 pounds. Vernon has dubbed the pair’s lunch hour Poppyseed’s Pandemic Puppy Playtime in the Park. “Right now we spend every single minute together. We are hardly ever apart,” Vernon said. “But lunch hours are special. We spend dedicated time. I throw balls.”

“For what it’s worth, Poppyseed’s lunch is always incredible,” Vernon continued. “A jambalaya thing for dogs that I got at Bayside Bark.”

Er, what does Vernon herself eat for lunch these days now that the pandemic means she works from home?

“It’s a whole hour at the dog park. It’s about 15 minutes to walk there, half an hour at the park itself, and then 15 minutes to walk back to the apartment and usually in that time I have not managed to feed myself,” Vernon said. “What my actual lunch looks like is me having my camera off for the first five minutes of whatever Zoom meeting is next and literally gulping down a salad or a Clif bar or whatever is left in the fridge.”

Mini Quiches

Rachael Harkness’ 9-year-old daughter Lucy learned to make these mini-quiches from her British grandmother. The recipe comes from the beautifully illustrated children’s book “Lunch at 10 Pomegranate Street” by Felicita Sala. The recipe is in the metric system, so you will need a scale.

Makes 24

1 leek
Butter
Salt
200g bacon, cut into small strips
200g ricotta
200ml double  (or heavy) cream
7 eggs
Pinch of grated nutmeg
2 sheets of short crust pastry
300g shredded Gruyere cheese

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Remove the tough, dark outer leaves from the leek. Cut the leek in half lengthwise and rinse well. Cut the leek into thin slices and cook in a pan on gentle heat with a little butter and a pinch of salt for 20 minutes until soft. Fry the bacon for a few minutes until crispy.

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, cream, eggs, and Gruyere with a pinch of salt and some nutmeg. Mix in the leek and bacon once they are cool.

Cut 12 pastry circles out of the pastry. Fit the pastry circles in the compartments of ½-cup muffin tray and fill with 2-3 teaspoons of the mix. Bake for 15-20 minutes and repeat with the second batch.

Rigatoni with Vodka Sauce
The recipe comes from Bon Appetit magazine. “One of my cooler go-to recipes was rigatoni alla vodka. It’s so good,” said Anna Ackerman, who has been working at home since March and eating a sit-down lunch with her housemates, her “pod family.”

Serves 4

1 onion
4 garlic cloves
4 ounces Parmesan
2 tablespoons oil, plus more for drizzling
1 (4.5-ounce) tube double-concentrated tomato paste
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 ounces vodka
¾ cup heavy cream
1 pound rigatoni
Basil leaves

Fill a stock pot or other large pot three-quarters full with water and heat over high. Toss in a handful of salt and bring to a boil while you do your other prep.

Peel and finely chop the onion.

Firmly smash the garlic cloves with the flat side of a chef’s knife and remove peel.

Grate the Parmesan on the smallest holes of the box grater.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat (position it next to pot of water). Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, just until onion is starting to brown around the edges, 5–7 minutes.

Add the entire tube of tomato paste and the red pepper flakes and stir until the paste evenly coats onion. Continue to cook, stirring often, until paste is deep red and starting to brown on bottom of pot, 5–7 minutes.

Add the vodka to deglaze the pan and stir to incorporate, scraping bottom of pot. Reduce the heat to low.

Using a heatproof glass measuring cup, scoop about ¼ cup boiling water from pot, then add the heavy cream to measuring cup (this brings up the temperature of the cream so it won’t break when you add it to the pot).

Slowly add the warmed cream to Dutch oven, stirring constantly, until a smooth sauce forms. Remove from heat.

Add the rigatoni to the boiling salted water and cook according to package instructions until al dente. About 1 minute before the timer goes off, use a heatproof measuring cup to scoop up about 1 cup pasta cooking liquid. Heat Dutch oven over low.

Using a spider, transfer the rigatoni to the Dutch oven along with any water that’s piggybacking on the pasta.

Add ½ cup of the pasta cooking liquid to the Dutch oven and stir to incorporate, then gradually add half of the Parmesan, stirring constantly to melt cheese. You should have a smooth, glossy sauce that coats each piece of pasta. Season with salt and add a splash more pasta cooking liquid to thin sauce, if needed.

Divide the pasta among bowls. Top with the remaining cheese, dividing evenly. Drizzle with more oil, then tear basil leaves over.

Chickpea Flour Flatbread with Sauteed Onion and Cumin (Farinata)

Since she has been working from home, Press Herald Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky said she has taken almost as many photos of her pandemic lunches as she has of her cat. She’s made this truly delicious Ligurian snack several times to go with lunch, often with soup. It goes by the name “socca” in Nice, France.  The recipe comes from “All About Dinner: Simple Meals, Expert Advice” by Molly Stevens. It’s a perfect pandemic recipe in that you can mix up the batter in the morning before work, which will take about a minute, as well as slice and saute the onions. Then, as lunchtime approaches, you put the batter in the oven, then return to your desk to edit or whatever it is you do, and some 20 minutes later, enjoy it fresh and warm. You’ll need chickpea flour; Bob’s Red Mill makes it, or you can find at Indian grocers under the name “besan.”

Serves 6 as a snack, 4 as a side

1 cup chickpea flour
Salt
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion (about 4 ounces), thinly sliced
¾ teaspoon chopped fresh sage or rosemary
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns

Put the chickpea flour and salt (¾ teaspoon kosher or ½ teaspoon fine) in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Add 1¼ cups cool water and whisk away any lumps. The batter will be the texture of heavy cream. Cover the bowl and set aside at room temperature for 3-4 hours (or up to 12 in the refrigerator).

Heat a small skillet over medium heat, then add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the onion and sage (or rosemary), season with salt and cooking, stirring frequently until the onion is tender and golden, about 10 minutes. Cool.

Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and peppercorns and toast, shaking the pan frequently, until fragrant and beginning to darken, about 1 minute. Immediately pour the spices into a mortar to cool. Grind coarsely.

Heat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. When the oven is hot, place a large oven-proof skillet (12-inch cast-iron is good) on the middle rack and heat for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk 1 tablespoon olive oil and the toasted spices into the batter, followed by the onions. It’s fine if the batter looks a little foamy.

Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pan and let it spread out. Immediately add the batter and return the skillet to the oven. Bake until the flatbread is fully set and golden, with darker brown edges, about 15 minutes.

Use a pancake turner or offset metal spatula to loosen the bottom of the flatbread from the pan. Slice into wedges or squares and serve warm or hot.


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